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Travelling: Travel Report: Phuket PDF Print E-mail
Travel Report: Phuket

Sherrie Liu has again been busy and productive. We are pleased to give you details of her latest trip to Phuket!

ON THE BEACH

By Sherri� Liu Schabel

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Hippies were the first to put Phuket on the map back in the 1970s. Like Goa, Kathmandu and Marrakech, to name a few, the sites they chose always seemed to have perfect sunsets, interesting food and easy living – features with which Phuket has been richly rewarded. They settled down here for a while and then moved on, as they usually do, when word got out about the island’s fine, white sandy beaches and sheltered coves, the clear waters and the waterfalls, the fishing, scuba diving and seafood. You still see a few of them, with their long braids and backpacks, but mostly tourists run the gamut of middle-aged Europeans and cheerful travelers in their sixties, to starry-eyed honeymooners and bliss-bound sun seekers – all depending on where you’re staying.

We decided to go to Phuket for two reasons: one, because I wanted to visit the nearby islands of Koh Phi Phi (where Leonardo DiCaprio’s new movie The Beach was shot) and see what all the uproar was about, and two, because we could get a reasonably-priced last-minute travel package there. Throughout last year I read dark murmurings about damaged coral, the importation and planting of foreign foliage, and in general a Disney-fication of the landscape for the filming. It’s ironic that the novel by Alex Garland, on which the film is based, addresses this exact topic: the disastrous introduction of Western ethics into an apparent utopia, a remote, deserted Thai island. Leo mania had hit Thailand and I wanted to see if there was anything left.

There are as many hotel choices on Phuket, from the lofty Amanpuri, the most expensive resort on the island, and incidentally, where Leo stayed during filming, to spartan thatched-roofed bungalows that bind strangers into an instant community. Our Free & Easy package included a short flight on Silk Air, and a four-day stay at the Sheraton Grande Laguna. Looking back, I couldn’t be happier with our choice: the Sheraton is one of five resorts at Laguna Beach on Bang Thao Bay (which also includes the Banyan Tree) – where you can use facilities (restaurants, spa, sports) at any of the other resorts and have it billed directly to your room. For easy access, there are complimentary buggies or ferries that shuttle you around the complex.

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The eight-kilometre long sheltered beach is just across a grassy lawn from the hotel. When we arrive, we’re just in time for the Sheraton’s sponsored baby elephant on her afternoon stroll. She is as tall as I am, already with suit of wrinkly skin and prickly fuzz, and long, long eye lashes. (N.B. As an orphan, she was nearly blinded from an eye infection before being nursed back to health through the Elephant Help Project.) Guests are invited to feed her chopped up cucumbers and bananas, as she demonstrates various commands: bowing, fishing in pockets for hidden treats, rolling over, sitting up. After three days, I have become a special friend – by stashing exotic fruits from our breakfast buffet. I would peel the mangosteens (she disdains the bitter rind), and she would shuffle impatiently for me to deposit the juicy bits into her wanting mouth.

In the morning, we went directly to the water-sports pavilion, where two guards lounged, smiling that Thai smile. “Good morning,” they would say in unison. “What a lovely day for water sports.” There isn’t much of a breeze, but we are determined to sail around the bay. “Oh yes, we know how to sail.” They smile back and proceed to launch a Hobie Cat. We climb on board and in no time the resort was far behind us. What freedom – the hot sun and wind, the water splashing on us as we keel.

During our stay I was planning to indulge in a few spa treatments at the Banyan Tree Spa. Hmmm – but what to choose? A Cucumber and Ginger Body Cleanser, followed by a Honey Release Massage? Or perhaps the Thai Herbal Heat Treatment, and a Lomi Lomi Massage? In the end, I never got around to it. Between our hotel and the sea, under the shade of trees, about two dozen local ladies had their own spa set up, complete with massage tables, medicated creams and oils (you supply the towel). At any given time, more than half the tables are full, so there’s not a lot of privacy – the women are always chattering and the clients are usually sighing, grunting or snoring – but you won’t come across a better bargain. For about S$12.00 a tiny Thai woman will perform an industrial strength massage, kneading away all the kinks and tugging and pulling on your limbs for an hour.

In the evening, we ventured to Patong for a taste of the night life. When the sun sets, Patong’s main streets start filling with stalls, and the discos, go-go dance halls, seafood restaurants, massage parlours, Thai boxing arenas, and everything in between, springs to life. One of the nicest restaurants here is Baan Rim Pa, with it’s large open terrace set on a cliff at the northern end of Patong Beach. But for the most part, the town teems with tourists and is an abomination compared to the monastical repose I usually seek out on holiday.

After the clutter of Patong, I was looking forward to the serene contrast of Koh Phi Phi. We’re booked on a full day tour and the next morning we find ourselves on a speedboat, with a group of 12, thrusting off to the islands, a 45-minute ride away. In reality Koh Phi Phi are actually two islands – Phi Phi Don, where the hotels are, and Phi Phi Leh, the uninhabited national park where they shot the movie. As we approach Maya Bay (the beach in the movie) we are all struck by its natural beauty – steep cliffs of limestone that drop precipitously into the blue-green water. What’s more, patches of jungle cling to every flat surface, in canyons and depressions that pock the cliff’s top and sides. The Beach is surprisingly quiet, but for a dozen or so sunbathers. I am relieved that I don’t see any concession stands or hawkers marring this quiet haven.

After a brief snorkel around the bay, we cruise around the island and stop at Viking Cave, famous for its prehistoric paintings, its stalactites and stalagmites, but probably best known for the swifts that build their edible nests high above in the dark crevices of the ceiling rock. These birds, the poor things, spend weeks building the nests from their own spit, only to have them harvested and sold at outrageous sums to Chinese restaurants. Our guide shows as a sample nest – it is a dirty white colour and gummy in texture, and doesn’t look very appetizing.

For lunch we stop by Phi Phi Don and dine at one of the islands hotels. Though it’s been discovered, the atmosphere here is decidedly more laid-back than on Phuket – there are a couple air-conditioned resorts, but most accommodations consist of modest cabanas built for the budget traveler. We stroll along the sand path marking the main street, and pass numerous dive shops and small restaurants that display the catch of the day on ice outside. After lunch, we head off for Bamboo Island where the visibility is ridiculously clear – you can stand waist deep and see the fish swimming around your ankles. As we dive around the shallow waters, it’s easy to forget there’s actually water separating you from the Technicolor world of live coral and psychedelic fish.

So, what of the notorious Beach and the movie that’s going to put Phi Phi on the map? Maya Bay and all the surrounding little islands are obscenely lovely. The infamous palm trees that were planted for the movie (apparently to make the beach look more “authentic”) are now gone, and the film’s producers claim they collected and disposed of tons of trash before shooting even began. To my untrained eye, it’s hard to see what ecological damage Hollywood might have done here, and why there was ever such a furore. And as for the movie, well, I still haven’t seen it yet.

TRAVELER’S FILE

Airport Tax

Remember to save 500 Baht per person for airport tax.

Accommodations

Since it’s such a popular destination, there are many value-added offers in Phuket. Most travel agencies offer Free & Easy packages which provide airfare, airport transfers, discounted hotel rates, with sightseeing and breakfast thrown in.

Sheraton Grande Laguna Beach

10 Moo 4 Srisoonthorn Road

Cherngtalay, Thalang, Phuket 83110

Tel: (66) 76.324.101

Website: www.lagunaphuket.com/sheraton

The Elephant Help Project provides medical care for the growing number of elephants that work in Phuket’s tourism industry. Funds are raised through sales of painting made by elephants, donation boxes at all of Laguna Phuket’s hotels, and through an adoption scheme. For more information, go to http://elephanthelp.org

Tours

Phuket Adventures offers tours to Phi Phi, Phang Nga Bay (also known as James Bond Island) and Krabi. All excursions include lunch, fresh fruit, soft drinks, snorkeling equipment, tour leader and two way hotel transfer. Tours cost from 2,600 to 2,800 Baht per person (including VAT).

Phuket Adventures

22/1 Moo 2, Thepkasatree Road

T. Koh-Kaew, Phuket 83200

Tel: (66) 76.238.802 or 76.238.939

Website: www.thaiwave.com/phuketadventures

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